James E. Beitler III.2019. Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
While writing my recent book, Simple Faith, I discovered that an important distinctive of the Christian faith is that the Gospel is one of the best stories ever told. People do not come to faith through logical arguments alone; they come to faith when the heart and mind are both persuaded. Because rhetoric is the art of persuasion, the evangelist must learn to employ rhetoric in service of the Gospel in order to succeed.
In his book, Seasoned Speech, James Beitler writes:
“The arc of the book’s argument is to move from a discussion of individual postures of Christian witness (ethos as an appeal to an individual’s character) to a discussion of communal ones (ethos as an appealing gathering place) … In brief, I want to encourage church members to reflect on various aspects of the rhetorical tradition, highlight important and practical ways of establishing ethos when witnessing, and bring rhetorical facets of Christian worship into relief.”(21-22)
In some sense, Beitler has turned deconstructionism on its head and set in service of the Gospel by providing five case studies of how Christian leaders have employed rhetoric in speaking Gospel to power!
The five leaders chosen are: C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers, Desimond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson. In choosing two white authors, a black bishop, and two women authors, Beitler has deflated the criticism of Christianity as being a white man’s religion that oppresses women and people of color that has alternatively arisen from cultural Marxists, feminists, and Islamists.
Beitler never gives us a cultural context for his own application of Christian rhetoric, but he outlines a model in his discussion of Bonhoeffer’s interface with the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler. Beitler writes:
“Corrupting and parodying religious concepts, Hilter’s rhetorical strategy involved pitting the Rome-like capital of Munich [not Berlin!] against a diabolical portrayal of the Jew…Within this rhetorical geography, Hitler positioned himself at Munich’s center, presenting his ‘inner voice’ as the sole authority of the Aryan nation and demanding ‘the total identification between leader [der Fuhrer] and people [der Volk].”(99)
By contrast, Bonhoeffer spoke out about German Christians standing with Jewish converts (Messianic Jews), who were being excluded by the Nazis, he organized an underground seminary to teach traditional Christianity to church leaders, and wrote about the need for Christian community and Christian ethics. If our identity is in Christ, then we must identify as a community also with the people that Christ loves. (98-105)
Background and Organization
James E . Beitler III teaches writing at Wheaton College in Illinois. His doctorate is from the University of Michigan (2009) while his bachelors (2002) and masters (2004) are both from Wheaton College. He writes in six chapters:
- Preparing the Way: C.S. Lewis and the Goodwill of Advent
- Professing the Creeds: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Energy of Christmastide
- Preaching the Word: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Epiphanic Identification
- Calling for Repentence: Desmund Tutu and Lenten Constitutive Rhetorics
- Hosting the Guest: Marilynne Robinson and the Ethos of Eastertide
- Speaking in Tongues: The Church and the Heroglossia of Pentecost (vii)
These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction, and followed by a bibliography and indices.
In part one of this review, I give an overview of Beitler’s book. In part two, I look at each of the five leaders that he focuses on.
James E. Beitler III’s Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church is an unusual book on rhetoric because it does not focus on how to write a persuasive speech. Rather he focuses on speech as a righteous, political act in the Christian tradition through five case studies of Christians in the twentieth century who redefined what it means to live in community as Christians. What is perhaps surprising is that Beitler is a postmodern evangelical writing to an evangelical audience about social ministry, a topic frequently reserved for progressive authors. While this statement may set you to head scratching, you may want to put this book on your reading list.
Beitler Takes Words Seriously, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.